When it comes to living a healthy life is sugar a sweet friend or an insidious enemy?
Sugar is often painted as the ‘bad guy’ of a healthy, nutritious diet. You’ve probably heard the horror stories about sugar being the source of all kinds of health problems including obesity, diabetes and wrinkles. Like everything else, there is no doubt that excessive sugar has an adverse effect on your health but does this mean that excluding all forms of sugar from your diet should be your next move?
A sweet treat
First, let’s take a look at the ins and outs of sugar. It is a type of simple carbohydrate which exists in a number of forms. There are different types of sugar because it is derived from different sources. From liquid sugar to granules, one of the traits these various forms of sugar have in common is that they all taste sweet.
In general, sugar can be divided into two categories – monosaccharaides (the simplest form of carbohydrate) and disaccharides (a more complex form of carbohydrate). The types of sugar which fall under the monosaccharaides category include:
- Glucose – When your body digests carbohydrates, it will be transformed into glucose and is commonly known as ‘blood sugar’. It will then be transported around your body and will be used as energy. There are also natural sources of glucose which can be found in fruits and plants.
- Fructose – This is a type of fruit sugar which can be naturally found in fruits and some vegetables such as asparagus, cauliflower and mushrooms. There are also refined forms of fructose such as corn syrup.
Those that fall under the disaccharides category on the other hand are:
- Lactose – A form of sugar which can be found in dairy products. Lactose has received a fair amount of attention in the medical world as many people of all ages are lactose intolerant. This condition occurs when your body is not able to break down the lactose molecules and this leads to an inability to digest it.
- Sucrose – Sucrose is commonly known as table sugar and is a combination of glucose and fructose. It is usually derived from natural sources such as sugar cane and sugar beets. This type of sugar is used as a sweetener in most types of food.
- Maltose – It can be found in certain types of grains such as barley. Malt is made from maltose (germinated barley), which can be found in products such as beer, malt vinegar and in some confectionaries.
There are also substances which taste sweet but are not a form of sugar like sugar substitutes and artificial sweeteners.
When it’s broken down
Monosaccharaides and disaccharides can be commonly found in almost every type of food. The role of these sugars, as mentioned earlier, is to provide energy to the cells in your body.
When sugar is consumed, your digestive tract will break down all forms of sugar into the smallest molecules possible. After it has been broken down, the sugar molecules in the form of glucose, is absorbed by your blood. As glucose travels through your blood, insulin — a hormone which is naturally produced by your pancreas — will be released into your blood stream as well.
When insulin attaches itself to the blood glucose, it will then release the glucose to the cells around your body to be used as energy. A healthy balance of insulin and sugar is necessary, to avoid blood glucose-related medical conditions (such as hyperglycaemia and hypoglycaemia) and other complications.
Over the top
The presence of excessive glucose in your blood and low amounts of insulin can lead to high blood sugar levels. This condition is also known as hyperglycaemia or diabetes. Hyperglycaemia is a major health concern because when your blood sugar levels get out of control, further diabetes-related medical conditions such as glaucoma and kidney failure occur.
According to WebMD, the early signs of hyperglycaemia include headaches, frequent urination, weight loss and increased thirst. For patients with hyperglycaemia, it is important to control blood sugar levels. This can be done with insulin treatment, exercise and a balanced diet.
When you’re low
Low blood sugar levels occurs when there is a high amount of insulin but low levels of glucose in your blood. Just like hyperglycaemia, this condition can happen to anyone but is most prevalent among diabetics if too much of insulin is taken via medication.
Also known as hypoglycaemia, people who start feeling the symptoms of this condition usually a have blood glucose level below 70 mg/dL. Symptoms include confusion, dizziness, hunger and feeling weak. To avoid hypoglycaemia, you should not skip meals and have small healthy snacks in between your three main meals.
Balancing the odds
To achieve a healthy level of sugar in your blood, it is important to be vigilant with the food that you consume. However, this does not mean that you should exclude every type of sugar from your diet. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has set a guideline that added sugar should not make up more than 10 percent of your daily intake.
As it is found in most types of food, it is often impossible to identify the presence of added sugar in every meal. However, understanding the difference between natural and added sugar might just do the trick.
Naturally occurring sugars, which are commonly found in unprocessed food are lactose and fructose. These types of sugars are carbohydrates as well but as they are from natural sources, they also contain other benefits such as vitamins and minerals. For example, fresh milk, which contains lactose for energy also contains calcium which builds strong bones. Fruits too are a great source of natural sugar as they are rich in fructose and contain other forms of vitamins and fibre.
This form of sugar has been processes to become white sugar, brown sugar, molasses, corn syrup and other forms of sweeteners which are commonly found on supermarket shelves. Although added sugars are also carbohydrates and will be able to provide the energy you need, there is a downside to this. Unlike natural sugars, added sugars generally do not contain any other nutritional benefits.
Sugar is important in order for your body to function but this does not mean that you should add sugar to your diet. Aim to limit processed food especially sweet treats such as sweets, biscuits and cookies but if you must have some, be sure to read the food label thoroughly and look out for sugar content in the product. You should be aware of terms such as glucose, sucrose, corn syrup and fruit juice which represent sugar.
You should keep in mind that food at restaurants tend to contain a lot of additional sugar. If you dine out, be sure to tell the waiter that you would like all types of added sugar excluded from your meal. A better and more pocket friendly option would be to cook your own meals as this gives you total control of your sugar intake (for more information on hidden sugars, flip to page 9).
It is important to choose the right sources of sugar to ensure that sugar remains a friend that provides an important source of energy and not an enemy that causes a lifelong medical condition like diabetes. As Malaysians, food is part of our rich culture. Do not let the fear of sugar stop you from enjoying our local food. Instead, educate yourself about sugar and become a smart food enthusiast.
The American Heart Association explains the different meanings to some commonly used terms.
Sugar-free: The product contains less than 0.5 grams of sugar per serving.
Reduced sugar: The sugar content of the product has been reduced by 25 percent for each serving, compared to its original version.
No added sugar: The product does not contain any form of sugar including those from natural sugar sources such as fruit juice or dry fruits. However, artificial sweeteners may be included in the product.
Practical Guide To Diabetes Management During Ramadan
Fasting during the holy month of Ramadan is a practice followed by Muslims around the world. The call to fast during Ramadan is stated in the Holy Quran but Muslims with medical conditions, such as diabetes, are exempted from fasting. However, according to information in a booklet produced by Norvatis, the Ministry of Health and Malaysia Endocrine And Metabolic Society, many diabetic patients who are Muslims, still choose to fast.
The booklet, which is appropriately entitled Practical Guide To Diabetes Management During Ramadan emphasises that meal planning is important if diabetic Muslims, choose to fast. To stay healthy, they are encouraged to consume slow energy-release food such as rice and beans.
During the fasting month, Muslims with diabetes should make it a point to consistently monitor blood glucose levels, never skip sahur (the meal at dawn) and never delay the breaking of fast. Mismanagement of these crucial elements can cause adverse outcomes such as dehydration (due to the limitation of fluid intake) and hypoglycaemia (low blood sugar level).
The booklet, also recommends a pre-Ramadan medical review which should be conducted one or two months before the fasting month. Speak to your healthcare professional about how you can fulfil your religious obligations as a diabetic and avoid any related complications during this period.
To Read More On Diabetes Management in Month of Ramadhan :